What, How, Why?
Over the past few months I've been listening to all of Beethoven's sonatas on these 9 CDs. I've got to tell you, I'm so in love with Beethoven! Beethoven is still….180 years after his death…..one of the most famous and influential musicians of all times. What exactly is it that he did with his life? Who really was Beethoven, the man? How did he do it? Why is he still so famous? In this speech I want to look at the what, the why and the how of Beethoven. And we can learn a lot about how to live our own lives better from looking closely at the lives of very famous people.
What did he do? Ludwig Van Beethoven was a German composer and virtuoso pianist born
into a musical family
in the German town of Bonn on the 16th of December 1770. As a child, he watched 4 siblings die; he suffered bullying from his drunken father to practice piano and violin all night, he saw his father sink into alcoholism and irresponsibility, and his dearly-loved mother die from TB when he was 16. So he was basically then responsible for his two younger brothers at age 16. All these harsh life experiences obviously made him very tough – focussed, disciplined, hard-working.
He moved to Vienna when he was 21 and supported himself through a combination of annual stipends or single gifts from members of the aristocracy; he got some income from concerts and lessons; and selling his compositions. His income was very up and down throughout his life - never completely secure.
Life was never easy for Beethoven. Besides the financial insecurities, he suffered chronic abdominal pain from his early 20s which led to his death at age 57 in 1827 from lead poisoning. He also suffered a severe form of Tinnitus – a ringing in the ears, which eventually made his profoundly deaf. He was attracted to "unattainable" women (married or aristocratic), and he never married. He was a restless bachelor - he moved house no fewer than fifty-two times! What he must have suffered to compose under these conditions! His life was so very hard, that he considered suicide, and wrote about it to his brothers, in a letter: his Heiligenstadt Testament, but he resolved to continue living for and through his art.
How did he behave? Beethoven had to develop enormous strength of character to survive the difficulties of his life, so he had little patience with idle frivolity or social chit chat. I read that he disdained authority, social rank and pompous or corrupt aristocrats. He stopped performing at the piano if the audience chatted among themselves, or failed to give him their full attention. At soirées, he refused to perform if suddenly called upon to do so. Dedication to his muse – his source of inspiration - was a higher priority in his life than manners, dress, friends or normal behaviour.
He was aware of his uniqueness: What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.
Because of his spiritual strength and integrity, he had a close and devoted circle of friends all his life.
Why is he still so famous?
Beethoven had a profound and spiritual vision of the importance of music: "I despise a world that doesn't feel that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy" he said. In the face of all the terrible difficulties of his life, he chose to live a life of strength and attitude. Beethoven said: "I shall seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely."
Conclusion. Everyday from dawn to early afternoon, Beethoven wrote music for piano, violin, orchestra - concerti, sonatas, quartets, symphonies, chamber music, masses and an opera. Beethoven listened to his heart and soul and wrote out his passions – the depth, the desperation, the intensity; the sublimity, the subtlety, the delicacy; the rhythms, the contrasts, the patterns of all human emotions. He said: "I have never thought of writing for reputation and honor. What I have in my heart must come out; that is the reason why I compose."